October 7, 2009

Leave it to Dan

Bowler, batsman, fielder, captain - none of Vettori's roles fails to lift a side that badly needs inspiration

Daniel Vettori deserved better. Cricket has a wicked sense of humour.

That a long-serving cricketer of high distinction and considerable merit, a player universally admired, a captain whose team has been recognised as the most sporting among its peers, a warrior to his bootstraps, should be denied an opportunity to play in the final his small nation had sought with such determination was already sufficiently unjust. That one of the game's most durable players, and that in a team constantly undermined by injuries, should at that very moment, with glory beckoning at last, be struck down by a tweaked hamstring was a cruel blow. Although his team fought to the end, it could not overcome its last and most devastating setback, the removal of its guide, the withdrawal of one of the period's most impressive and improbable cricketers. Without Vettori, the underdogs lacked balance. Without him to nag at them, the Australians looked comfortable.

All things considered, both the victor and the vanquished had ample reason to be pleased with themselves. New Zealand were not supposed to reach the last four, let alone the final. As a matter of fact they were supposed to be the easy beats, the West Indians of their group. South Africa and Sri Lanka were the fancied runners. In some respects it was an unfair casting. After all, they have been a handful in this maligned version of the game for years moving into decades. Unlike some hotter contenders, too, they had been playing a good deal of 50-over cricket recently and were prepared. But their group was tough and they seemed to lack the power detected elsewhere.

Moreover, New Zealand have always seemed to find a way to undo themselves, refusing to play a routine World Cup match in Kenya, lamely accepting bans on important players like Shane Bond, arguing among themselves and afterwards writing books saying that the other chaps were bounders and cads, and most of all enduring endless hurtful injuries. No country has found it as hard to put its best side on the field. No team has more needed to do so.

Somehow these frustrations do not seem to affect Vettori. If he was aghast when Jacob Oram's body once again let him down or when Jesse Ryder started hobbling at the very moment his side began to soar, he did not show it. As player and captain he has taken everything in his stride. In itself that is his measure.

Captaining the Darlington fourth XI is a tricky enough assignment. Doubtless the gentleman occupying that position is surrounded by highly strung pace bowlers, butterfingered fieldsmen, hot-headed batsmen and fellows persuaded that most defeats are caused by dubious tactics. Captaining an international side is exhausting. Even the most successful current skippers have plenty on their plates. Leading New Zealand has its own particular challenges. Now and then things fall into place, whereupon a certain euphoria sets in. Often it lasts as long as an hour, whereupon it emerges that the best bowler has gone in the fetlock. Back to the drawing board.

Vettori has not merely survived all the numerous afflictions that attend his position, he has been strengthened by them. Somehow retaining hope and humour, a pair as well connected as Laurel and Hardy, he has held himself and his team together through it all. As much was apparent from his side's fearless effort in the semi-final and even in the final. As other teams licked their wounds, contemplated their mistakes and headed home, New Zealand kept going.

Vettori has not merely survived all the numerous afflictions that attend his position, he has been strengthened by them. Somehow retaining hope and humour, a pair as well connected as Laurel and Hardy, he has held himself and his team together through it all

Along the way they managed to subdue a rampant Pakistan side already talking about confronting the Australians in the final. Before that they shattered Sri Lanka's complacency. Throughout they relied not so much on devastating stints or decisive innings as on perseverance. They did not overwhelm opponents. They just scored a few more runs than them.

Not that it was a perfect campaign. Nothing is ever that simple in their cricket. New Zealand's habit of playing two wicketkeepers appeared unwise, the running between wickets left a lot to be desired, and the tail seemed as long as an alligator's. On the other hand, the middle-order batting was stronger than it seemed on paper, not least because Martin Guptill is about twice as good as most observers had realised. Ross Taylor is likewise capable.

And the pace bowling was competitive, with both new-ball bowlers, Kyle Mills and Bond, standing high in the rankings. Some of these players were surely helped by their involvement in the IPL. Suddenly they were playing alongside the giants of the game and holding their own. Suddenly they knew they were well regarded in the cricket community. Australian, and nowadays Indian, players know they belong. New Zealanders need a bit of back-up.

Besides the batting and pace bowling, New Zealand had another prized asset, Vettori himself. At first sight he is not much of a player. After all he does not turn the ball nearly as sharply as numerous contemporaries, and plays a correct stroke about once a week. As a spinner he cannot upset a batsman's calculations with a bemusing ball that seems bound to go in one direction only to head off in another, leaving the willow-wielder feeling as foolish as the passenger who caught the wrong train. Limited practitioners are not supposed to survive in this age of heavy bats, tamed pitches, short boundaries and audacious batting. Mystery balls are supposed to be their only recourse. Vettori has nothing in his repertoire except the traditional weapons used by slow bowlers from previous generations. As a batsman he is ungainly, relying almost entirely on carts, biffs, clouts, tucks, clatters, heaves and slaps, not at all the sort of words that find their way into the lexicons of our more sensitive poets. And this is New Zealand's pride and joy?

Of course Vettori is a far more substantial player than he seems. His cricket is best judged not by style but by the effect he has upon opposing batsmen and bowlers. Take the semi-final against a gifted, abrasive, well-led, likeable Pakistani side. Managing to find 11 fit players, accepting that one wicketkeeper sufficed, and not wasting any time mourning absent friends and match-winners or the lost toss, Vettori extracted from them a performance indicating that his team did not intend merely to make up the numbers. Pakistan were held to a modest total.

Vettori played his part in the containment. Try as they might, the batsmen could not get hold of him. With the ball he resembles the Scarlet Pimpernel. They seek him here, they seek him there, they seek the confounded fellow everywhere but they cannot pin him down. Evidently the game has not changed half as much as modernists imagine. Skill is still paramount. And skill, craftsmanship, has a beauty of its own. With Vettori it's not the delivery itself that takes the wicket, it's the company it keeps. He resembles a spider weaving a web. Opponents are not so much destroyed as trapped. Assisted by an innocent look, he sends down apparently innocent deliveries that possess the capacity to mislead. His changes of pace continue to elude experienced players. Steve Waugh could not make head nor tail of him.

Repeatedly opponents find themselves playing back to deliveries fuller than they seemed, or else groping at balls that curve unexpectedly. A village-greener might smack him into kingdom come, trained batsmen find him hard to collar. Here is a bowler from the old school, using his wits, disguising his intentions, relying on method not magic.

Lacking a batsman of Ricky Ponting's stature, New Zealand could not depend on a single decisive innings as they pursued their target. Instead they were obliged to chip away till it was in range. Meanwhile New Zealand had to confront their own fears. Previously the team had squandered its chances as the occasion and decades of thwarted aspiration tightened nerves. Not the least of Vettori's achievements has been to encourage his players to play the ball and not the match. Even so the batting faltered until the captain walked to the crease at fourth wicket down. Anyone watching Vettori in the nets might be hard pressed to put him as high in a club side. The sole discernible merit in his batting is that he scores runs. Oh yes, and he watches the ball, knows his game, hits the ball to unusual places, has the heart of an ox, and manages to remain rational in the heat of battle. Otherwise he is hopeless.

Undaunted by his position, task and history, Vettori produced exactly the innings required to meet the occasion. At first he relied on singles and otherwise concentrated on reassuring Grant Elliot that things were going according to plan. Most supporters and commentators thought that progress was too slow. Typically, Vettori did not lose his nerve. Remaining calm, he took the Powerplay at exactly the right moment and promptly cut loose, cracking the ball to the leg-side boundary in his inimitable way. Inspired, Elliot also broke the shackles and in a few overs the deed was done and the match was won.

All the more reason to regret the captain's inability to take his place in the final. Instead he had to watch as his team played fitfully, losing wickets at bad times and sometimes recklessly and afterwards striving with might and mane to defend a modest total.

In the end the Australians were too strong. They also have a story to tell. But Vettori and his side walked away with heads held high, and a sense that much can be accomplished by a hardworking side playing under the leadership of a combative and thoughtful captain.

Vettori does not waste time thinking about his limitations, concentrates instead on making the most of the ability he has at his disposal. And he brings the same outlook to his captaincy. Nor is uplifting his team his only contribution. Amid all the trials and tribulations, the comings and goings and the disappointments, Vettori and his side retained their sportsmanship. The ICC award was well deserved and ought not to be lightly regarded. Vettori has not merely served New Zealand cricket with distinction, he has treated the game itself with unwavering respect.

Peter Roebuck is a former captain of Somerset and the author, most recently, of In It to Win It

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